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High court sides with pornography opponents

WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has handed opponents of pornography two tenuous victories.

In decisions announced on the same day, the justices rescinded federal appeals court rulings that overturned anti-pornography measures. They returned the cases to the same courts for further proceedings, but provided no assurance they would uphold the laws when the cases revisit the high court.

In Ashcroft v. ACLU, the high court ruled the Third Circuit Court of Appeals erred by striking down the Child Online Protection Act solely on the basis of its reliance on “contemporary community standards” for deciding what material is harmful to underage children. The Third Circuit, located in Philadelphia, Pa., ruled this provision made the law too broad, because material on the Internet “deemed harmful by the most puritan of communities” would require the restriction of “vast amounts of material” for all users and likely violate the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court determined, however, the community standards measure does not “by itself” make the law overbroad in regards to the First Amendment. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, delivering the court’s judgment, said the justices were not by their decision expressing “any view as to whether COPA suffers from substantial overbreadth for other reasons” or “whether the statute is unconstitutionally vague.”

Seven other justices agreed with Thomas in the judgment, but there were three other opinions concurring in the judgment while providing differing analyses. Only Associate Justice John Paul Stevens dissented.

In Los Angeles v. Alameda Books, the Supreme Court decided the Ninth Circuit Court was wrong to not hold a full trial in rejecting a city ordinance that prohibited “sex superstores.” The Ninth Circuit, located in San Francisco, ruled in favor of two bookstores/video arcades under the same roof, saying the city had not provided sufficient evidence such businesses produce crime.

The high court determined a 1977 study by Los Angeles produced enough evidence that sex businesses in close proximity or in the same building result in increased crime, such as robbery and prostitution, in those neighborhoods.

Only five justices agreed on the ruling, and Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s agreement came only on the judgment, not the reasoning. Associate Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Stevens dissented.

Some pornography opponents expressed mixed feelings, at best, about the decisions.

“The good news is that these confusing, concurring and conflicting opinions by the court reveal that not all of the nine justices have completely lost their minds when it comes to the pornography issue,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“The bad news is they are confused and have lost the focus that they should have on protecting children first,” Land said. “It is also increasingly clear that many of them have little if any true understanding of the extent to which children’s lives are ravaged permanently by child pornography and those adults who become addicted to it.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, said the high court’s ruling on COPA makes it clear “there are still many constitutional hurdles ahead in the battle to protect children from online pornography. At a time when the pornography industry seems to be gaining ground in securing constitutional protections, it is both disturbing and frustrating that it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide legal protections for children against online pornography.”

Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act in 1998 after the Supreme Court struck down a more expansive 1996 measure, the Communications Decency Act. COPA, which is not being enforced while its constitutionality is settled in the courts, bans commercial Web sites from making sexually explicit material available to minors.

The May 13 opinions followed by less than a month a highly criticized ruling in which the justices invalidated portions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act, a 1996 federal law that expanded a ban on child porn to include images that appear to be of children under 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct.